A Student’s View

Sam VanLaningham

To become a research scientist and a teacher — that’s Sam VanLaningham’s goal. The OSU Ph.D. student from Ellensburg, Washington, received his master’s degree working with Andrew Meigs in the Department of Geosciences. For his Ph.D., VanLaningham walked next door to study with Bob Duncan and Nick Pisias in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences geochronology lab. In 2006, the United States Science Support Program of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program awarded him a Schlanger Ocean Drilling Fellowship, which includes a $28,000 annual stipend for his research.

Here’s his story:

My research

Bob Duncan, Nick Pisias and I have developed a new technique using Bob’s argon gas source mass spectrometer to fingerprint land-derived sediments in the ocean. We have two goals:

  • Track how rivers express climate change in the Pacific Northwest
  • Track past ocean circulation patterns in the Pacific Ocean

We want to better understand the total range of climate variability along the margin of western North America through time.

Exciting results

To make the long journey from the land into the deep ocean, soils and other sediment grains have to be pretty small. Studying these tiny grains can be difficult, and there is a need for techniques that can overcome this problem. Such sediments provide a valuable continuous record of geologic history.

We are using Bob’s lab in a novel way to “fingerprint” these fine-grained materials. We have shown it to work well for the Pacific Northwest, and we are now using it to study sediments in other parts of the world, such as the North Pacific. If we confirm some of our initial results there, we may have a big impact on how we view past ocean circulation in the Bering Sea and the Pacific.

My own career

Bob’s 30 years of experience in geochronology have made it possible for me to explore new techniques that could contribute to the field of Earth science. Having a mentor with this expertise has allowed me to explore my own creativity with new methods. Working with Bob has provided me with the conceptual and critical thinking skills that I need to succeed in making my own contributions to science, education and the public.

Working in the lab

Bob has been a very reliable, positive and supportive mentor for me. Moreover, his fellow soccer coach and good friend, Nick Pisias, is my co-adviser. Together, they use time-tested psychological coaching techniques, which they have honed with teenage soccer players, on me.

I’m not sure if they were expecting to need such tactics with an adult male, but their good-cop-bad-cop approach has been just what the doctor ordered for the development of my career and my own personal growth. They have offered me every opportunity a graduate student would ever need. They have picked me up when I was down, and they have pushed me to become my best and to go beyond what I thought I was capable of. I feel lucky to have been able to work with them.